I have been an avid runner ever since I had my first daughter back in 2008. And over time I've learned that there's nothing that beats the proverbial "runner's high" in terms of high-impact exercise. Not only is running an incredible workout, but it's an amazing stress reliever.
Starting the day with a long, vigorous run provides you with a burst of energy that lasts throughout the day and it's truly a whole-body workout like nothing else. However, running is risky. Your joints take quite a pounding and your muscles can be strained. Shin splints are an issue for many people and tendinitis and stress fractures can occur. You have to be very mindful of your form and posture and it's highly recommended that you don't run on pavement more than a couple of times a week, the least forgiving of the surfaces on which you can run.
That said, I'm not planning on giving up my running habit any time soon because I truly love it and get a lot out of it. I'm lucky that I've not experienced an injury of any sort (knock wood) and I love that it's an exercise I can do anywhere, anytime, for free.
But a smart runner must know, you have to vary your exercise routine. There are myriad reasons to switch things up when it comes to your workouts, not the least of which is the fact that you can't get the most "bang for your buck," so to speak, if your body becomes accustomed to the same movements and the same muscle usage each day.
Your body becomes complacent and you don't reach your optimal level of fitness, if that's what you're looking for. And furthermore, there's more to life and health than the strenuous, heart-pounding, sweat-excessive running that is so popular. The real question needs to be, how do we achieve OVERALL HEALTH? Health of not only the physical body, but also of the mind and the soul?
At Water Gallery, we believe in the immense value of mindful living-- mindful of our natural environment, mindful of our personal choices, and mindful of our physical and mental health. And there's nothing that contributes more to mindfulness than yoga. One of the most beneficial things any of us can do for our bodies and minds is to take some time each week for yoga practice. Sure, keep running (I know I will!). But dedicate at least two days a week to yoga. Once you start, you won't be able to ever imagine life without it.
As is true with anything that you've never tried before, yoga can seem intimidating. There's the whole concept of the "yogi culture"-- impossibly strong and lean, flexible and fit, spiritual and calm folks who seem to have the time and focus (not to mention the talent) to do yoga every day, all day, and can achieve yoga positions that we mere mortals can only dream of. Sure, there are those folks. And I take my hat off to them. But that is not the norm!
In the many yoga classes I've taken over the years, there has always been a vast range of ability levels, age groups, sizes, levels of flexibility and fitness, and a strong representation of both genders. What the best yoga teachers do is ask in the beginning of class, before practice even begins, is whether anyone is completely new to yoga. If so, the instructor, without being intrusive, should pay special attention to someone who has never tried yoga before.
A good instructor will also ask whether anyone has an injury that he or she is concerned about-- just because you have a "bad knee" or regular back pain doesn't mean you should avoid yoga. In fact, having those types of issues may make you the best candidate for regular yoga practice. The best instructors will help you modify positions to avoid further injury or discomfort. A good instructor always keeps an eye on everyone in the class, throughout the whole time period, helping adjust positions if needed, helping people to pull back if something is uncomfortable, and push harder if a person is able. There is room for everyone in a yoga class!
What are the benefits of yoga that are unmatched in other forms of exercise? The list is expansive. One could write a whole book in the advantages of yoga (and many have!), but for today's purposes, I'll focus on a few of the most important ones:
Firstly, over time and regular yoga practice, your flexibility will grow exponentially. During your first class, you may not even be able to touch your toes! That's ok. Little by little, you'll see amazing growth in your flexibility, the benefits of which are far-reaching. Inflexibility can lead to many aches and pains-- tight hips can strain the knees and prohibit the thigh and shinbones from aligning correctly; tight hamstrings can lead to a flattening of the spine which can cause back pain; inflexibility in muscles can cause poor posture. The flexibility that grows with regular yoga practice can help combat all of those things and more.
Secondly, yoga promotes muscle strength. This benefit goes beyond the superficial. The presence of muscular strength has many effects on our overall health, including protecting us from conditions like arthritis, back pain, and dangerous falls in older age. But what's cool about yoga is that it balances strength with flexibility. For example, if you just go to the gym and lift weights, it's very easy to build strength at the cost of flexibility, which is not what you should aim for.
Thirdly, yoga prevents joint and cartilage breakdown. Every time you practice yoga, your joints go through the full range of motion. The "squeezing and sponging" of the joints that comes with taking them through the full range of motion is imperative for joint and cartilage strength. Joint cartilage can be likened to a sponge, receiving the fresh "nutrients" it needs only when its fluid is squeezed out and replaced with new "sustenance." Yoga does just that.
Fourthly, yoga is hugely beneficial for bone health, which is so important for women in particular, especially as we age. It's widely known that cardiovascular exercise and strength training promote bone health and yoga is a safe and effective way to pull those two things together. And interestingly, yoga practice decreases growth of the stress hormone cortisol-- with a decrease in cortisol, our bones may be able to absorb more calcium and therefore, maintain more strength.
Fifthly, yoga combats depression and promotes positive mental health. Many studies have found that the calming postures and positions of yoga actually promote an increase in the "happiness hormone" serotonin and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, as I mentioned above. Long-time yoga devotees tend to be happier, more balanced people with better immune health. And the great thing is you don't have to be a yoga expert to achieve these benefits; simple weekly practice goes a long way towards mental health.
From promoting a healthier lifestyle (when we take time to meditate and listen to our breathing, we can make more rational, calm decisions throughout the day, whether that's food choices or choosing to get more rest), to decreasing blood pressure, to helping us with better posture, to preventing digestive issues, and increasing self-esteem, the benefits of yoga are numerous. As I said, I'm not going to give up my running or my spin classes, but I am going to continue to make time for my yoga practice every week. Both the body and mind need it. If you haven't already, give yoga a try! I guarantee, it'll be a life-changing choice.